More Choice, Less Cheetos: Responding to Stress in Ways You’ll Feel Good About Later

How many times in the past week have you found yourself in a preoccupied limbo of your own design? Perhaps you spent the morning avoiding emails, scrolling through the hashtag “#bikinikillreunion” instead. Maybe it was last night, when fastidiously organizing the spice rack helped you deny the uncomfortable reality that your rent is going up next month. Or maybe it was during Wednesday’s wee hours, as you crunched the calculus of life’s existential conundrums.

But enough about my week; how about yours? Were there times you ignored your stressors to disappear into an avoidance cocoon? Or perhaps your cacophonous anxiety thrummed so loudly that no voice of reason could cut through the noise. Did you eat all the Cheetos again, or buy that dumb thing you don’t need?

Look, it’s cool. We all have emotional responses to stress and those emotions demand we take action. Flee the scene! Solve all the problems now! Hibernate! Numb out! While there’s nothing wrong with your Cheetos habit, per se, there’s a difference between making an intentional choice to eat the whole bag and looking down at your orange fingertips wondering what the F just happened. Why didn’t my stress disappear with the contents of the bag?

Being overwhelmed taxes the brain’s “vertical integration.” Think of vertical integration as a staircase linking the amygdala—the region of the brain most responsible for regulating survival instinct—to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain primarily involved in high-level functions like decision-making, abstract thought, and empathy. Difficult thoughts, feelings, or circumstances activate your stress response, temporarily hijacking the functionality of the prefrontal cortex. This leads to reactive, impulsive, or defensive behavior; useful when the stressor is a mountain lion. But when the stress is traffic or your to-do list, not so much. So, are there ways to enable more clarity, choice, and resilience during challenging moments? Take heart: You can take back your brain.

First, it’s important to get acquainted with your habitual stress responses, particularly at reflective moments when you aren’t actively stressed. Get curious about why you do what you do. Perhaps you tend to ghost at the first sign of challenge in a relationship. Maybe you wall yourself off in order to feel safe, glued to your phone in order to avoid real engagement. Begin to identify the cost of engaging in these reactive, impulsive, or habitual modes of operation. These insights alone may not entirely eliminate your stress responses, but over time, they can help gird the development of new, more constructive habits.

When overwhelming feelings descend, press pause before acting. Take a few mindful minutes to help your body settle as your brain reintegrates. A short meditation practice is one of the fastest, most accessible ways to achieve this. But if stillness is too challenging for you, mindful movement can be just as effective. Sure, Yoga may be trendy, but there’s a reason it’s been around since 3,000 BCE, and contemporary research supports its efficacy. There’s also evidence to support the benefits of a brisk 10-minute walk for improving one’s mood.

Having integrated your body and mind, it’s time for skillful action. Now you can tame your stress response, calm your body, and utilize your full cognitive capacity. You’ll be ready to confront stress with clarity, integration, and connection to yourself and others.

How do you show up to stress? (Surely I’m not the only one whose spice rack looks amazing right now…) Do you have an effective tool or tactic to help you deal? I want to hear about it. Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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